The perils of impenetrable gibberish


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In London this month, it is possible to pay up to £195 for a ticket to a two and a half-hour play about the importance of washing your hands.

It is called Dr Semmelweis after Ignaz Semmelweis, a prickly Hungarian doctor who died without being recognised for groundbreaking discoveries he made in the 1800s about disinfection.

I went last week, for considerably less than £195, mostly because the riveting Mark Rylance plays Semmelweis, but also after confirming that the two-and-a-half-hour running time included the interval.

I’m glad I did because the Semmelweis story turns out to confirm a long-held view that rotten writing at work is not just irritating but potentially dangerous.

He was surrounded by baffling dangers when he worked in the labour wards of a Vienna hospital at a time when so-called childbed fever was ravaging maternity departments across Europe.

There were two separate maternity clinics in his hospital. Babies were delivered by doctors in one and by midwives in the other.

Death rates were much higher in the clinic with the doctors, who typically went to the labour wards after doing autopsies without washing their hands. Thinking “cadaverous particles” might have stayed on those hands, Semmelweis devised a policy requiring everyone to scrub their hands in chlorine before entering the labour wards and bingo: death rates in the doctors’ clinic plunged.

Alas, the idea did not catch on. Some of Semmelweis’s colleagues disliked the suggestion they were causing their patients’ deaths. Others disliked the undiplomatic and difficult Semmelweis himself. He left Vienna and led an increasingly troubled life, dying in a mental asylum at the age of 47.

Rylance brings his story to life on stage with predictable brilliance. But the play does not dwell on one part of Semmelweis’s downfall that I came across later. When he finally got around to writing a book outlining his research, it was a clunker. 

“It was criticised for poor language and unprofessional writing style,” says one medical journal article on Semmelweis. “Long, repetitive and at times almost impenetrable,” reports another. The only English language version I could find online confirms that, even by 19th century standards, snappy it was not.

Still, Semmelweis was an embittered outcast with serious mental health problems. There is no excuse for the guff emitted by some of our most storied corporate titans today, especially when they are announcing financial results.

“I remain fully confident that continued execution will enable us to deliver on our through-the-cycle return targets,” David Solomon, Goldman Sachs chief executive, told investors a few weeks ago.

He was comprehensively outdone days later when Jim Fitterling, chief executive of the Dow Chemical group, said: “We proactively navigated the challenging near-term macro environment by implementing our targeted cost savings actions while capitalising on our advantaged feedstock position and participation in attractive end-markets.”

The legal profession is another reliable source of gibberish, so it was a delight to see it produce a court document this month that reads like a pacy thriller.

I speak of the latest indictment against Donald Trump, which accuses the former president of trying to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. 

This is a story of death threats, violence and frantic plotting, where a string of little-known heroes stand up to extraordinary efforts to pressure them to break the law. 

At the centre is the smouldering figure of Trump, remorselessly seeking ways to stay in power, to the bewilderment of many aides.

“It’s tough to own any of this when it’s all just conspiracy shit beamed down from the mother ship,” writes one senior Trump campaign adviser.

“It’s a crazy play,” writes another.

Could any of this make a difference to the outcome of the trial, or Trump’s hopes of winning next year’s US presidential election?

It is impossible to say. Bad writing alone did not bring down Ignaz Semmelweis and a highly readable legal case may not dent Trump. 

I like to think the compelling way this case is told might stay in the minds of swing voters come November next year. But either way, it is a reminder of what a film Trump’s legal battles could eventually make, though even Mark Rylance might struggle to make a character this fantastic seem real.

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Lisa Holden
Lisa Holden
Lisa Holden is a news writer for LinkDaddy News. She writes health, sport, tech, and more. Some of her favorite topics include the latest trends in fitness and wellness, the best ways to use technology to improve your life, and the latest developments in medical research.

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